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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

NRA is the Poacher's Best Friend

When the NRA walks the halls of the U.S. Congress these days, it may stand for “No Rational Argument.”

Last year, the group tried to use some of its political capital to block legislation toughening the federal penalties for illegal dogfighting and cockfighting. The NRA simply didn’t like the fact that The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society Legislative Fund supported the bill, so it chose to align itself with Michael Vick rather than the law enforcement officials who arrested him for financing a dogfighting ring. The legislation it tried to stymie passed the House and Senate overwhelmingly, and was signed into law by President Bush.

Bear_2 Now, in an instant replay worthy of Michael Vick’s highlight reel, the NRA is trying to shoot down legislation that would stop the illegal poaching of bears. First dogfighters and cockfighters, and now poachers. We already know that group defends canned hunters and captive pigeon shooters. What other animal cruelty enthusiasts will the group defend next?

The Bear Protection Act, H.R. 5534, introduced by U.S. Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and John Campbell (R-Calif.), would bar the interstate commerce in bear bile and gall bladders. These internal organs are sought by poachers for sale on the lucrative black market for Asian medicines, and even non-medicinal items like aphrodisiacs and hemorrhoid creams.

Poaching is a cruel and wasteful epidemic. Game wardens report finding bear carcasses in the woods with nothing removed but the gall bladder. For every bear legally killed by a hunter in North America, some estimates indicate that at least one other bear is illegally poached by a criminal.

Thirty-four states already ban the sale of bear parts—including major bear hunting states like Alaska—because hunters and wildlife managers long ago decided that wildlife should be used as a public resource, not for private commercial gain. But the patchwork of state regulations makes the enforcement of anti-poaching laws difficult, as the organs from a bear poached in one state could be sold legally in another. And a gall bladder from a black bear looks identical to one from a polar bear or Asiatic bear. There’s no way to tell at the point of sale whether the bear was killed legally or illegally, or whether the bear’s population was endangered or thriving.

The Bear Protection Act would crack down on poaching by establishing a national policy on the sale of bear viscera. It doesn’t have any impact on lawful bear hunting—only bear poaching—but the NRA is actively fighting the legislation. The group has rattled its saber over the bill, and has already strong-armed a couple of its allies—Reps. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and Mary Fallin (R-Okla.)—into withdrawing their co-sponsorship.

Why would the NRA defend the interests of poachers, when it has so many other policy issues to worry about? It doesn’t make much sense, unless the group has some members who are not satisfied with conventional bear trophies and bearskin rugs, and instead want to mount a bear’s gall bladder over the mantle.

Bear_3 In an online poll of NRA members last week, 60 percent said the most important policy issue was expanding right-to-carry permits, 26 percent favored opposing semi-automatic bans, and only 14 percent wanted the organization to focus on hunting issues. My guess is that only a handful of NRA members would ask the organization to prioritize the protection of poachers.

Fortunately, there are more reasonable hunting groups that support law enforcement and oppose poaching. The American Hunters and Shooters Association, for example, has endorsed the Bear Protection Act, and the group’s president, Ray Schoenke, testified in Congress in favor of the anti-poaching legislation.

By defending the most abominable practices, the NRA might just shoot itself in the foot. When the group paves the way for poachers, it is certainly using its political capital and adding to a record of disrepute.  Maybe members of Congress will end up seeking alternative voices to defend their Second Amendment interests—not the interests of criminals.

Whether you are a hunter or an animal advocate, contact your members of Congress today and ask them to support the Bear Protection Act. Don’t let the NRA get away with protecting poachers.

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